Pluriversal Paths

Cover of Issue #16

This article is part of Issue #16

Buy Now


There is no doubt that after decades of what has been called “development”, the world is in crisis - systemic, multiple and asymmetrical. Long in the making, it now extends across all continents. Never before did so many crucial aspects of life fail simultaneously, and people’s expectations for their own and children’s futures look so uncertain. Crisis manifestations are felt across all domains: environmental, economic, social, political, ethical, cultural, spiritual and embodied. The book Pluriverse - A Post-Development Dictionary, which this feature is extracted from, is an act of renewal and repoliticisation, where “the political” means a collaboration among dissenting voices over the kinds of alternative worlds we want to sustain or create.

A critical part of our problems lies in the conception of “modernity” itself - not to suggest that everything modern is destructive or iniquitous, nor that all tradition is positive. Indeed, modern elements such as human rights and feminist principles are proving liberatory for many people. We refer to modernity as the dominant worldview emerging in Europe since the Renaissance transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period and consolidating towards the end of the 18th century. Not least among these cultural practices and institutions has been a belief in the individual as independent of the collective, and in private property, free markets, political liberalism, secularism and representative democracy. Another key feature of modernity is “universalism” - the idea that we all live in a single, now globalised world, and critically, the idea of science as the only reliable truth and harbinger of “progress”.

Among the early causes of this multiple crisis is the ancient monotheistic premise that a father “God” made the Earth for the benefit of “his” human children. This attitude is known as anthropocentrism. At least in the west, it evolved into a philosophic habit of pitting humanity against nature and gave rise to related dualisms such as the divide between subject versus object, mind versus body, masculine versus feminine, civilised versus barbarian. These classic ideological categories legitimise devastation of the natural world, as well as the exploitation of sex-gender, racial and civilisational differences.

In giving voice to diversity, we share a conviction that the global crisis is not manageable within existing institutional frameworks. It is historical and structural, demanding a deep cultural awakening and reorganisation of relations both within and between societies across the world, as also between humans and the rest of so-called “nature”. As humans, our most important lesson is to make peace with the Earth and with each other. Everywhere, people are experimenting with how to meet their needs in ways that assert the rights and dignity of Earth and its threatened inhabitants. The search is a response to ecological collapse, land grabs, oil wars and forms of extractivism, such as agroindustry and plantations of genetically engineered species. In human terms, this theft brings loss of rural livelihoods and urban poverty. Sometimes western “progress” gives way or leads to diseases of affluence, alienation, and rootlessness.

In giving voice to diversity, we share a conviction that the global crisis is not manageable within existing institutional frameworks.

An overarching theme [in the Dictionary] is the much-celebrated political gesture of “sustainable development”. Of course, even well-intentioned people may inadvertently promote superficial or false solutions to global problems. Then again, it is not so easy to distinguish mainstream or superficial initiatives from “radical, transformative” ones, in these days when the military-industrial-media complex and greenwashing industry promotions are at their seductive best.

Regular conferences at a global level would reiterate the mismatch between “development and environment”, with the 1987 report Our Common Future bringing it sharply into focus. However, the United Nations (UN) and most nation-state analyses have never included a critique of social structural forces underlying ecological breakdown. The framing has always been on making economic growth and development “sustainable and inclusive” through appropriate technologies, markets and institutional policy reform. The problem is that this mantra of sustainability was swallowed up by capitalism early on and then emptied of ecological content.

The main section of the dictionary gathers together a range of complementary notions and practices that form radical and systemic initiatives. Some of these revive or creatively re-interpret long-standing Indigenous worldviews; others come from recent social movements; yet others revisit older philosophies and religious traditions. All of them ask: What is so badly wrong with everyday life today? Who is responsible for it? What would a better life look like? How do we get there?

Together, these perspectives compose a “pluriverse”: a world where many worlds fit, as the Zapatistas of Chiapas put it. All people’s worlds should co-exist with dignity and peace without being subjected to diminishment, exploitation and misery. A pluriversal world overcomes
patriarchal attitudes, racism, casteism and other forms of discrimination. Here, people relearn what it means to be a humble part of “nature”, leaving behind narrow anthropocentric notions of progress based on economic growth. While many pluriversal articulations synergise with each other, unlike the universalising ideology of sustainable development, they cannot be reduced to an overarching policy for administration either by the UN or some other global governance regime, or by regional or state regimes. We envision a world confluence of alternatives, provoking strategies for transition - including small everyday actions- towards a great transformation.

Some visions and practices are already well-known in activist and academic circles. For instance, buen vivir, “a culture of life” with various names throughout South America; ubuntu, emphasising the southern African value of human mutuality; swaraj from India, centred on self-reliance and self-governance. Others, less well-known but equally relevant would be kyosei, minobimaatisiiwin, nayakrishi, as well as critically reflective versions of major religions including Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. So, too, political visions such as eco-socialism and deep ecology share points of convergence with earlier communal ideals. While many terms have a long history, they reappear in the narrative of movements for wellbeing, and again, coexist comfortably with contemporary concepts such as degrowth and ecofeminism.

Women are defending nature and humanity with the clear message that there can be no decolonisation without de-patriarchalisation.

Whereas the west managed to sell its own idea of “one world” - known only by modern science and ruled by its own cosmovision - the alter-globalisation movements propose pluriversality as a shared project based on the multiplicity of “ways of worlding”. Under conditions of asymmetric power, Indigenous peoples have had to alienate their own common sense experience of the world and learn how to live with the Eurocentric masculinist dualism between humans and non-humans, which led them to treat Indigenous peoples as non-human and “natural resources”. They resist this separation when they mobilise on behalf of mountains, lakes or rivers, arguing that these are sentient beings with “rights”, not mere objects or resources. Conversely, many thinking people in the industrialised world are demanding rights for the rest of nature to be expressed in law and policy. In so doing they are taking a step towards incorporating something that Indigenous peoples have always integrated into their worldview, but they are doing so in the formal ways that they are familiar with. There is a long way to go for the multiplicity of worlds to become fully complementary with each other, but movements for justice and ecology are finding increasing common ground. So, too, women’s political struggles converge upon this same point.

In both the global north and south, it is most often ordinary caregiving mothers and grandmothers who join this entanglement - defending and reconstituting communal ways of being and place-based forms of autonomy. In doing so, they draw on nonpatriarchal ways of doing, being and knowing. They invite participation, collaboration, respect and mutual acceptance, and horizontality; they honour sacredness in the cyclic renewal of life. Their tacitly matriarchal cultures resist ontologies, founded on domination, hierarchy, control, power, the negation of others, violence and war. From the worldwide movement of Peace Women to African anti-extractivist networks, women are defending nature and humanity with the clear message that there can be no decolonisation without de-patriarchalisation.

How do we get from here to there? We are, after all, talking about profound shifts in the spheres of economy, politics, society, culture and lived sexuality. Transitioning implies accepting an ensemble of measures and changes in different domains of life and at different geographic scales. Transitions can be messy and not fully radical, but can be considered “alternative” if they at least hold a potential for living change. Given the diversity of imaginative visions across the globe, the question of how to build synergies among them remains open. There will be setbacks; strategies will fade along the way and others will emerge. Differences, tensions, even contradictions, will exist, but these can become a basis for constructive exchange. The ways towards a pluriverse are multiple, open, and in continuous evolution.

Words by Lesley Le Grange

Ubuntu is a southern African concept, which means humanness. Humanness implies both a condition of being and a state of becoming. It concerns the unfolding of the human being in relation to other human beings and the more-than-human world of non-human nature. In other words, the becoming of a human is dependent on other human beings and the cosmos. Moreover, ubuntu suggests that a human being is not an atomised individual of the western tradition, but is embedded in social and biophysical relations. Therefore, ubuntu is anti-humanist because it emphasises the relational existence and becoming of the human being.

Ubuntu is derived from proverbial expressions or aphorisms found in several languages in Africa, south of the Sahara. In the Nguni languages of Zulu, Xhos and Ndebele spoken in South Africa, ubuntu derives from the expression: Umuntungumuntungabanye Bantu, which suggests that a person’s humanity is ideally expressed in relationship with others, and, in turn, is a true expression of personhood: “We are, therefore I am”. Botho is its equivalent in Sotho-Tswana languages and is derived from the proverbial expression, Mothokemothokabathobabang. Ubuntu comprises one of the core elements of a human being. The Zulu word for human being is umuntu, who is constituted of the following: umzimba (body, form, flesh), umoya (breath, air, life), umphefumela (shadow, spirit, soul), amandla (vitality, strength, energy), inhliziyo (heart, centre of emotions), umqondo (head, brain, intellect), ulwimi (language, speaking) and ubuntu (humanness). Ubuntu is, however, not only a linguistic concept, but has a normative connotation embodying how we ought to relate to the other - what our moral obligation is towards the other. Ubuntu suggests that our moral obligation is to care for others, because when they are harmed, we are harmed. This obligation extends to all of life, since everything in the cosmos is related: when I harm nature, I am harmed. Like all African cultural values ubuntu circulated through orality and tradition - its meaning, interwoven in the cultural practices and lived experiences of African peoples. Such cultural values became eroded or effaced by colonisation. However, in post-colonial Africa, ubuntu and its equivalents have been re-invoked as a part of a decolonising project and also enjoys increasing appeal globally as an alternative to dominant notions of development that threaten the achievement of social justice and environmental sustainability. For example, some Afro-descendent groups in South America are invoking ubuntu to gain a more nuanced understanding of buen vivir.

Ubuntu therefore depicts solidarity among humans and between humans and the more-than-human world.

Ubuntu conveys the idea that one cannot realise or express one’s true self by exploiting, deceiving or acting in unjust ways towards others. Being able to play, to use one’s senses, to imagine, to think, to reason, to produce works, to have control over one’s environment are not possible without the presence of others. Ubuntu therefore depicts solidarity among humans and between humans and the more-than-human world. It can be invoked to build solidarities among humans in the struggle for social justice and environmental sustainability, which are central concerns of social movements across the globe. Ubuntu proposes that human creativity and freedom should only be constrained when it harms others. Ubuntu is the manifestation of the power within all beings that serves to enhance life and not thwart it. This is a power that is productive, that connects and engenders care and compassion - it is the power of the multitude that gives impetus to social movements. This form of power is in contrast to power that imposes, that divides, that colonises - the power of the sovereign wielded by supranational organisations, governments, the military and the corporate world. The latter form of power results in the erosion of ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s transformative potential lies in providing alternative readings to some of the key challenges faced by humanity in the 21st century: growing inequality among humans, impending ecological disaster and human’s interconnectedness with new technologies to the extent that it is difficult to determine what “being human” now is. Concerning the latter challenge, the invocation of ubuntu foregrounds the importance of affirming humanness, not by defining what it is to be human so as to declare other entities as non-human, but through a process that involves the unfolding of the human in a context of burgeoning new technologies. Addressing inequality in the world suggests a concern about humans only - it is human-centred - whereas addressing the ecological crisis extends the interest to the more-than-human world - it is eco-centric. Ubuntu is transformative in that it transcends the human-centred (anthropocentric) and eco-centred (eco-centric) binary. Relationality among human beings should be viewed as a microcosm of relationality within the cosmos. Nurturing the self or caring for other human beings is therefore not antagonistic towards caring for the more-than-human world - ubuntu cannot simply be reduced to a category of anthropocentric or eco-centric. The self, community and nature are inextricably tied up with one another - healing in one domain results in healing in all dimensions and so too is suffering transversally witnessed in all three dimensions. The struggle for individual freedom, social justice and environmental sustainability is one struggle.

Two potential limits of ubuntu might be identified. First, a narrow ethnocentric interpretation of the concept could be used politically to exclude others. By this, I mean that certain groups who have gained political power in post-colonial Africa might claim that the concept belongs to them - even though this might contradict the meaning of the term - or hold the view that it cannot be subjected to critical scrutiny. Put differently, ubuntu could become reduced to a narrow humanism that has resulted in atrocities such as xenophobia experienced in South Africa in recent times. Second, because of its popular appeal, ubuntu could be co-opted by supranational organisations, governments and the corporate world to suit their own agendas, or given the dominance of western ways of knowing, could become assimilated into a western cultural archive, thus eroding its “indigenousness”.

Pluriverse: A Post-development Dictionary is published by Tulika Books, 2019.

Share this article

Words by

Ashish Kothari

Ashish Kothari is with non-profit environmental organisations Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, in India, and co-editor of Alternative Futures: India … Learn more

Ariel Salleh

Ariel Salleh is an Australian scholar-activist, author of Ecofeminism as Politics and editor of Eco-Sufficiency and Global Justice. arielsalleh.inf… Learn more

Arturo Escobar

Arturo Escobar is a Colombian-American anthropologist who teaches at University of North Carolina and is author of Encountering Development.

Learn more
Federico Demaria

Federico Demaria is with the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and co-editor of Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era.

Learn more


Ilustrations by

Lívia Serri Francoio

Lívia Serri Francoio graduated in Classical Animation and Biological Sciences. Since 2012 she has been carrying out projects in areas like editoria… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #16

Cover of  Issue #16
Pluriverse Confluence Alliance

A critique of the prevailing narratives that shape our lives: challenging oppressive systems, revitalising cultural narratives, unveiling obscured …

Buy Issue #16
Explore Issue #16

Explore Related Pieces